George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw as The Most Interesting Man in the World

THE LAUREATE: George Bernard Shaw was born in 1856 to a middle class Irish family. He quickly became an ardent socialist, and his artistic and critical output was copious and wide-ranging. He might be the only Nobel winner to also win an Oscar, which is pretty cool. He died in 1950.

WHAT I’M READING: Two of the plays that turn up in well-stocked used book stores the most often: Caesar and Cleopatra and Arms and the ManREVIEW: Arms and the Man doesn’t go far enough. In it, a couple that is to be married is broken apart by finding out that other people are better suited to them. Raina the heiress sheltered a Swiss soldier under Serbian arms when he broke into her house after a rout. Said rout happened when Sergius led an idiotic charge against an artillery outpost that just happened to have gotten the wrong kind of ammunition.What Shaw is trying to accomplish here is the de-romanticizing of war and the petty stupidities the upper classes inflict on themselves and the people around them in the name of maintaining appearances. I guess it was okay for 1898, but after World War I and the lost generation artists, Arms and the Man seems trite by comparison.

Caesar and Cleopatra, when I started it, I thought I would get a chance to complain about how Shaw infantilizes Cleopatra, turning who we now realize was a very strong-willed and intelligent woman into a simpering brat. That got old fast, but then I got to these lines: “Belzanor: A marvelous man, this Caesar! Will he come son, think you? Apollodorus: He was settling the Jewish question when I left.” Everything from there to the end just yelled colonialist condescension. In Shaw’s notes to the play, when he talks about Caesar’s British slave Britannus, he sums up the problem (unknowingly, of course): “I find among those who have read this play in manuscript a strong conviction that an ancient Briton could not possibly have been like a modern one. I see no reason to adopt this view.” G. B. Shaw has fallen into the worst trap a historian can: seeing his own culture in that of the one he is writing about. Shaw’s Caesar is a snarky British conquistador, on top of the world and surprised that others aren’t thrilled that he deigns to shine the brilliant light of his civilization out in the depths of the barbarian lands. Ugh.

RECOMMENDED: Well, if you’re in a post-colonial lit class and you need something to contrast with, Caesar and Cleopatra is a safe bet. Let’s be fair to Mr. Shaw, though: I did read two plays from the early half of his career. Maybe his later work is better. I will investigate, but later

WHAT’S NEXT: I should talk about Maurice Maeterlinck, since I read his play a month and a half ago. So, uh, he’s next.


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